This week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Germany, where he held a press conference with German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. During the event, he was asked a Gotcha question:
Asked whether as Palestinian leader he planned to apologize to Israel and Germany for the attack ahead of the 50th anniversary, Abbas responded instead by citing allegations of atrocities committed by Israel since 1947.
“If we want to go over the past, go ahead,” Abbas, who was speaking Arabic, told the reporters.
“I have 50 slaughters that Israel committed in 50 Palestinian villages… 50 massacres, 50 slaughters, 50 holocausts,” he said, taking care to pronounce the final word in English.
Before delving into Abbas’ statement, it’s important to note that Mahmoud Abbas is no more the spokesperson of the Palestinian people than Donald Trump is the spokesperson for the American people. He is little more than a doddering potentate. A figurehead for a corrupt regime, who has betrayed, rather than served his people. My criticism below of the manufactured controversy over his remarks, is by no means a defense of the man himself or his leadership of the Palestinian people.
That being said, all of the faux outrage directed at Abbas’ response obscures a number of unsavory aspects of the incident and the world’s response. First, why should Abbas apologize for the Munich Massacre? He is not responsible for it. The Palestinian Authority, which he heads. did not even exist. Does Joe Biden owe an apology to Canada for America’s invasion of Canada during the War of 1812? Do Mexican journalists ask Joe Biden to apologize for stealing most of what is now the American Southwest in the Mexican War?
The question asked during the news conference was a deliberately provocative one. Unfortunately, Abbas was unprepared for it and walked right into a trap. He should have merely said something like what I wrote above and dismissed the question for what it was.
Second, the question was clearly asked in bad faith. Abbas’ outrage was justified. But lost in the maelstrom of denunciation is that Abbas was clearly engaged in hyperbole. The fact that he mentioned “50 slaughters, 50 massacres” before he added “50 Holocausts,” confirms this. Abbas does not literally believe Israel committed 50 Holocausts. Hyperbole is a common trope in political debate, including by Israel and its leaders.
For example, Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban defended Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank and refusal to withdraw. He claimed that doing so would return it to “Auschwitz borders.” The statement was ludicrous on its face, given that Israel had proven during the war (and every war since) its absolute superiority to all the Arab armies it faced. Nevertheless, the mere mention of “Auschwitz” was enough to silence anyone bold enough to level criticism.
Similarly, Shimon Peres once said that an Iranian nuclear weapon (which Iran does not have) would be “a flying gas chamber.” Of course this was hyperbole. But no one took him to task because Israelis are allowed to draw outrageous historical parallels to the Holocaust, while no one else can.
David Ben Gurion, desperate to ensure a Jewish majority in post-1948 Palestine, used Holocaust refugees to do so. Such a demographic majority was critical to his claim that Israel must be majority-Jewish; because this validated its claim to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. After the survivors immigrated, they were left to their own devices. One could argue that German reparations offered them more support than the State of Israel did. To this day, the few remaining survivors receive virtually no government support. Many live in abject poverty.
Third, Abbas’ statement was borne of desperation. Israel has engaged in apartheid and mass murder of Palestinians for the past 70 years. The International Criminal Court has found sufficient evidence that it plans to open an investigation of potential Israeli war crimes. Though controversial, a number of genocide scholars have argued that such ongoing suffering constitutes genocide. I have similarly argued this here. When an entire people face enormous suffering with no recourse, they will do and say things for the sake of dramatizing their suffering to the world. Given how little the world cares about Palestinian suffering, Abbas’ use of the term was completely understandable.
Israel’s is not the genocide of Nazi Germany carried out over a four-year period. Nor the genocide of Pol Pot or Rwanda, which also happened over a much shorter period than Israel’s systematic campaign to erase Palestinian rights, civil society, and existence. Israel’s criminality over that long period constitutes a creeping genocide, not carried out in a single systematic program, but rather over a long period with multiple complementary methods of gradually erasing Palestinian identity. It’s akin to dropping frogs into war water and raising the temperature until they are boiled alive.
Israel’s defenders bristle at the use of the term. But the UN definition of genocide clearly fits Israeli policies since 1948. Though actual extermination and mass murder are major factors defining the term, there are a number of other definitions which clearly match Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. One of them is the Nakba, the expulsion during the 1948 War of 1-million indigenous Palestinians from their native homes (and 300,000 more after the 1967 War). As Hanin Majadli wrote in Haaretz:
For years, the Palestinians have been trying to tell the story of their Nakba because, from their perspective, it is their holocaust.
…We also heard this week that the army killed five children in an attack in Gaza during Operation Breaking Dawn. Not a holocaust, but how would you describe this disaster? And this is just one disaster out of hundreds and thousands that sometimes occur every day, every week and every month, and in every operation. How would you describe the fact that, despite all this, Israel doesn’t recognize its crimes…
…One thing Israeli Jews are experts at is being shocked that their catastrophe, their trauma, their tragedy, is not recognized. Because only they exist, only they are victims. It is a little ironic that Abbas is now being crucified.
Another objectionable characteristic of the Israeli response to Abbas is the implicit view that Jews, and by conflation Israelis, have the sole right to use of the term “Holocaust.” That this event was sui generis. That Jewish suffering sets the Holocaust apart from any similar act of mass murder.
This is one of the reasons Israel has refused to label the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians as genocide. In addition, Israel has supplied weapons to a number of regimes engaged in genocide, including Rwanda, Burma, and South Sudan. Any Jew who wishes the world to recognize the Nazi Holocaust should treat other peoples who suffered similar tragedies as they would be treated. And above all they must never aid and abet contemporary genocides.
Arguing against Israel’s sole ownership of the Holocaust, survivors themselves like Hajo Meyer, Hedy Epstein, Chava Folman-Raban, objected to Israeli policies and did so in the name of themselves and their fellow victims. They likened Israeli crimes the those of the Nazis. As my friend Tony Greenstein wrote to me: Israel exploits the souls of the Jewish dead to legitimate its crimes. Let’s name it Holowashing. Such abuse of their memory is a chilul ha’shem (desecration of God’s name).
Personally, many of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Thus, I do not note such parallels lightly.
Even Israel’s then-deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, warned in an unprecedented speech that Israel was turning into a latter-day Nazi Germany:
“If there is anything that frightens me in the remembrance of the Holocaust, it is discerning nauseating processes that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically back then, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and seeing evidence of them here among us in the year 2016,” he said.
…He called on Israelis to…“uproot from among us buds of intolerance, buds of violence, buds of self-destruction on the path to ethical deterioration.”
If an IDF general can compare Israel to Nazi Germany, why can’t a Palestinian, actually suffering under the Israeli jackboot?
Further, the victims of the Holocaust were Jews (and Roma, gays, socialists, etc), not Israelis. Israel did not yet exist. So why should we permit Israel to wrest this historical tragedy from the Diaspora Jews who were its victims?
When Eichmann visited pre-state Palestine in 1937 he said that were he born a Jew, he too would be a Zionist.” He too clearly distinguished between Diaspora Jews, whom he despised; and Zionists, whom he praised (because they would rid Europe of the “Jewish problem”). Israelis too shared a similar disdain for Diaspora Jews in general and Holocuast survivors in particular.
Ben Gurion once infamously said that he would prefer rescuing half of European Jewry–if it meant they emigrated to Israel–than saving all of the Holocaust victims if it meant they did not come to Israel. In fact, Zionist Israel despised Holocaust victims, seeing them as going like “sheep to the slaughter.
Israel’s implied monopoly on the term, unfortunately enables it to define who may or may use it, and how they may use it. Israel’s outrage concerning the German incident is an attempt to constrict debate on Palestine. It is a form of linguistic policing which denies Palestinians access to their own suffering. Does a rapist get to tell his victim what terms she may or may not use to describe the crime committed against her? Does white America have the right to tell Native Americans that the latter didn’t commit genocide against them? These examples warn against permitting perpetrators to define their own crimes.
It’s also troubling that the world has embraced Israeli hegemony over issues like anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Germany, in particular, has codified the misguided IHRA “definition” of anti-Semitism as law. This has led to the absurd result of arresting Israeli Jews for protesting against Israeli policies. It has led to the dismissal of German-Palestinian newscasters from their jobs on trumped-up charges of being anti-Israel and, by extension, anti-Semitic.
Israel must not be permitted to distort the lessons of the Holocaust in order to protect it from its own crimes. By giving Israel carte blanche in this regard, the world compounds these crimes and renders it complicit in them.